"An American Dilemma," Gunnar Myrdal called the problem of race in his classic 1944 book. He saw a painful choice between American ideals and American racial practices. But in 1944, ten years before Brown v. Board of Education, most white Americans were not actually in much pain. Indeed, when asked in a survey that same year whether "Negroes should have as good a chance as white people to get any kind of job," the majority of whites said that "white people should have the first chance at any kind of job." Blacks belonged at the back of the employment bus, most whites firmly believed.
"Are they relatives of yours?" a white asks the protagonist in Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel, Invisible Man.
"Sure, we're both black," I said, beginning to laugh.
He smiled, his eyes intense upon my face.
"Seriously, are they your relatives?"
"Sure, we were burned in the same oven," I said.
Burned in the same Jim Crow oven, in the heat generated by overwhelming racial hostility. That brutal world is gone, but some of the scars remain. Both points are easy to forget but essential to remember. On both left and right, writers too often distort the picture for political ends, clouding our understanding of the nation's most important domestic issue. On the right, they frequently dismiss the persistence of racial animus, suggesting, indeed, that "those who look carefully for evidence of racism...are likely to come up short." On the left, critics such as Derrick Bell allude to the "bogus freedom checks" that "the Man" will never honor. An enslaved people remains enslaved.
There is no racism; there is nothing but racism. The issue of race sends people scurrying in extremist directions. And thus there is almost no overlap between opposing views, and little sympathy and understanding across the lines of political battle. In October 1994 the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down the University of Maryland's blacks-only Banneker Scholarship program. "I can't get over the irony of the rising African American jail population and then taking away a program like this that tries to bring African Americans into the university," the president of the university remarked. The Fourth Circuit had seen the issue quite differently: "Of all the criteria by which men and women can be judged," the court had said, "the most pernicious is that of race."
Americans committed to racial justice were not always so divided. In 1963, when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., stood at the Lincoln Memorial and spoke of his dreams, blacks and whites marching together pictured the "beautiful symphony of brotherhood" that treating blacks and whites alike would surely create. But that shared vision quickly faded, as many came to believe that race consciousness was the road to racial equality. "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race," Justice Harry Blackmun said in the Bakke case in 1978. In the civil rights community, by the late 1970s, that much-quoted aphorism had come to seem indisputably right.
Today we argue without a common language. University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier, a much sought after presence in the media, has repeatedly called for "a national conversation on race." We have not exactly fallen silent on the subject. We talk endlessly, obsessively about the issue, but across linguistic barricades. "Equal opportunity" is a much-used phrase with a much-disputed meaning. In the battleground of ideas, language is part of the territory each side seeks to capture. And thus, while advocates of race-neutral policies equate such equality with basic access -- an absence of closed doors -- their critics look for outcomes. "As a general matter, increases in the numbers of employees, or students or entrepreneurs from historically underrepresented groups are a measure of increased opportunity," Christopher Edley and George Stephanopolous, advisors to President Clinton, argued in 1995. No opportunity without results.
Definitional quarrels are only the start of the problem. Opposing sides in the debate over race start from different premises, and see American society through very different lenses. The topic of race raises fundamental questions about who we are, where we're going, how we get there. To talk about race is to talk about America -- and vice versa. The question pops up everywhere; one can't escape it. Try to name a significant domestic issue that has nothing to do with the status of African Americans: it's a challenge. Crime, family, education, housing, the environment, even foreign military entanglements and border control. Immigration is a good example. Newcomers, immigration advocates say, are good for the country; they contribute to its economic vitality. But are they good for black America? And if not, how much does that matter? What do we owe those who arrived on our shores in 1619 and remained members of an oppressed caste for more than three centuries? A relatively narrow question -- immigration policy -- is hopelessly entangled with the central issue in American life.
As authors, we have no easy answers to such policy questions. We offer instead a framework for debate -- a map. Or rather a book of maps, in the hope that if we understand the territory we can better decide the direction in which to head. Thus, we start with six historical chapters dealing with developments that climaxed in the 1960s and fundamentally altered the place of African Americans in American society and altered American society itself. We open with a detailed account of the development and nature of segregation in the Jim Crow South, drawing a dark picture too often forgotten. Until World War II three-quarters of the black population lived in the South, where they were a subordinate caste in a society dedicated to white supremacy. Chapter 2 traces the first Great Migration of blacks from South to North and describes the life blacks found upon arriving in Chicago and other northern cities. The contrast between the two regions was real, but not as stark as some have made it out to be. In the North, the pervasive threat of white violence that defined southern black lives was absent. But discrimination in the labor market and elsewhere was rampant.
In Chapter 3 we turn to the impact of World War II on the status of African Americans -- the major social, economic, and demographic changes that occurred in the 1940s and 1950s. Once again, in large numbers blacks boarded trains and buses for northern cities where the money was (relatively) good; in the war and immediate postwar years, black earnings rose dramatically -- more dramatically than they have in any subsequent two decades. The military was segregated, but southern and northern blacks served together, and the exposure of those from the South to northern racial attitudes was subversive. Ten years after the end of the war, the Montgomery bus boycott would begin -- a peaceful mass protest that led straight to the great civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s.
In Chapter 4 we trace the breakdown of that amazing patience that African Americans had so long displayed. We open with a discussion of Brown v. Board of Education, look at the quiet revolution in racial attitudes that began in the 1940s, and then go on to the opening chapters of the civil rights revolution itself: Montgomery; the rise of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; the use of federal troops to force the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School; and the sit-ins that began in 1960. Chapter 5 opens with a discussion of presidential politics and civil rights, and closes with the making of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; in the intervening pages it describes the Freedom Rides, the crashing failure of the demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, and the stunning success of those in Birmingham, Alabama; the revolution in white racial attitudes; the 1963 March on Washington; and the political timidity of President John F. Kennedy. In the last chapter of this first section, we treat the murder of student civil rights workers in Mississippi, the passage of the crucial Voting Rights Act of 1965, the emergence of the black power movement, and the eruption of race riots in the nation's cities.
We linger over what might seem, to some, ancient history (although within our lifetime, as authors) for two reasons. Much has changed, and we want to make that clear. Too often, the voices of racial pessimism depict a caste society in the 1990s not fundamentally different from that in which Richard Wright grew up in the Jim Crow South -- or that which he found in the North when he migrated at the end of the 1920s. The racial problems of today are in fact not the same as those of yesterday, and we cannot address them with a clear head unless we understand the difference.
There is another point to the historical chapters, however. We have not only come a long way; we began our travels well before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. As important as that movement was, led by Dr. King, it would not have succeeded if white racial attitudes had not already begun to change. By the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, at the end of 1955, a great many whites had already come to acknowledge the truth of Myrdal's charge that Americans did not practice what they preached.
From the historical section we move on to a group of chapters that examine social, economic, and political trends since the civil rights revolution. How many African Americans work in professional jobs? How many black families have middle-class incomes? How many now live in suburbia? How many black students are graduating from high school and attending college? Are whites voting for black politicians? We do a lot of counting in this book; how to measure social change reliably is one of our main concerns. We supply the reader with more than seventy statistical tables, making it possible to judge whether or not our conclusions are grounded in the evidence.
The third section is devoted to public policy and the changing racial climate. It's indisputably different to be black than white in America; race does matter. But how should Congress, federal agencies, courts, school boards, and others engaged in shaping our public life respond to the continuing importance of race? We trace the evolution of that response over the last thirty-five years and weigh the costs and benefits of race-conscious legislative districting, busing to integrate public schools, set-asides that reserve public dollars for minority-owned firms, affirmative action in university admissions, and related policies.
We end Part III with a chapter that explores the current racial climate: the racial divide that the O. J. Simpson trial made so evident; the seeming alienation of the black middle class; the conspiracy theories that have a surprising life across the lines of social class in the black community; the beliefs and social interaction of ordinary blacks and whites (as revealed in survey data); and the politics of racial grievance. And finally, in a conclusion that wraps up the book, we consider the status of blacks today, compare the black experience with that of other racial and ethnic groups, consider the general question of group differences, and outline our hopes for the future. As two authors for whom the 1960s were formative years, we remain committed to race-neutral policies. Not simply because they are morally right; in a society already deeply divided along lines of race, we see divisive race-conscious programs as dangerous.
This is a long book that provides a great deal of information about a wide range of matters related to the problem of race. But we cannot pretend to have examined every important facet of this enormous topic. Both of the authors are social scientists with a strong interest in public policy, and we have naturally devoted much of our attention to the issues that social scientists and policymakers have argued about most. We have neglected other dimensions of race and race relations not because we think them unimportant but because we know too little about them to feel that we have something significant to add. For example, it would undoubtedly be illuminating to trace the changing role of African Americans in American popular culture over the span of years considered here, from the days when two white radio performers played Amos and Andy, stereotypical black characters, to the era of Oprah, Michael Jackson, and Magic Johnson. Today disproportionate numbers of blacks rank among the highest-paid entertainers and athletes. Although we do not analyze this remarkable shift here, we believe that central arguments of the book will help to explain it.
The picture we draw is both heartening and sobering. Heartening because real progress has been made -- more progress than those who put their lives on the line in the 1960s probably imagined. Sobering because some of that progress has had negative unintended consequences; because civil rights strategies have not ameliorated the problems that grip the rural poor and the urban underclass; because some of those problems have actually worsened over time; and because old worries have now been joined by new and unexpected ones.
The signs of progress are all around us, although we now take that progress for granted. "Thirty-three years ago, I could not have come in here to have a cup of coffee and talk with my friends," Franklin McCain, Jr., the son of a participant in the first Woolworth's sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, noted in 1993 on the occasion of the closing of that store. "Today, I know my money is as good as any other man's. This means a lot." Andrew Young, among others, has also marveled at the pace of change. Delivering a sermon in 1983, he recalled his fear when driving through Georgia in the early 1960s. "It was the worst place in the world," he said. "If someone had told me that I would be a congressman in Georgia, an ambassador to the United Nations, and a mayor of Atlanta, what I would have replied cannot be said in a church."
In 1940 there was not a single African-American policeman in the five Deep South states, although those states contained almost 5 million black people, close to 40 percent of the nation's total black population. In that year the poverty rate for black families was a staggering 87 percent. Traveling in the South at about that time, Gunnar Myrdal was appalled to learn that any white could "strike or beat a Negro, steal or destroy his property, cheat him in a transaction and even take his life, without much fear of legal reprisal." Black people, he discovered, were "excluded not only from the white man's society but also from the ordinary symbols of respect." It would have been a major violation of the social order to address a black woman as "Mrs. Washington" -- "Mrs." being a term reserved for whites. Few African Americans could vote, and blacks and whites were kept apart in all public places.
In the North, restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations were not segregated by law. Blacks could cast a ballot and run for office, use the local hospital and the public library, sit at the front of a bus, share a lunch counter -- and even shake hands -- with whites. Perhaps most important, they had rights that whites had to respect. But a color line kept them out of the best-paid and most desirable jobs, the better restaurants, most "white" neighborhoods, and therefore "white" schools. In fact, some states allowed local communities to operate dual educational systems; Brown v. Board of Education, it may be recalled, involved segregated schools in Topeka, Kansas.
The curtain came down on the Jim Crow South in the 1950s and 1960s. In the North, too, the status of blacks began to improve dramatically -- the consequence of judicial decisions, the congressional action that followed civil rights protests, and a revolution in racial attitudes that began in the 1940s. In 1942, half of all northern whites believed that blacks were not as intelligent as whites, that they could not "learn things just as well if they [were] given the same education and training." Four years later the skeptics were down to less than 40 percent, and by 1956 their numbers had dropped to 17 percent. Asked whether they would object to a black "with the same income and education" moving into their block, in 1942 almost two-thirds of the nation's whites said yes. By 1956 the figure was down to 49 percent, and to 42 percent among northern whites.
Those were questions asked before sickening scenes of German shepherds and water from high-pressure hoses, used to quell peaceful demonstrations, had flashed across American television screens in the early 1960s. The civil rights revolution changed hearts and minds, as well as the law. By 1972 there was almost no dissent -- even in the South -- from the notion that whites and blacks should have an equal opportunity to get "any kind of job"; moreover, 84 percent of whites agreed that black and white students should attend the same schools.
Today almost three-quarters of black families are above the poverty line. In 1940, 87 percent of black families were in poverty; the figure was down to 47 percent in 1960 and 26 percent in 1995. The black college population has grown from 45,000 in 1940 to over 1.4 million today, a thirtyfold increase. Sixty percent of employed black women were domestic servants in 1940; today very few are. A majority, in fact, hold white-collar jobs. The number of black men in professional occupations has also risen impressively. Power and influence, in fact, were exclusively white prerogatives in 1940; there was no Vernon Jordan and no Michael Jordan.
That's the good news -- too little acknowledged or even understood. But there is much that is bad as well -- as anyone who has paid cursory attention to the news reports knows. The proportion of blacks in poverty is still triple that of whites. The unemployment rate for black males is double the white rate, the rate of death from homicide six times higher. Two-thirds of all black infants are now born to unmarried women, and only 35 percent of black children live with two parents -- dramatic changes that are of recent origin.
There are some discouraging -- as well as many encouraging -- signs on the educational front. Today's typical black twelfth-grader scores no better on a reading test than the average white in the eighth grade, and is 5.4 years behind the typical white in science. Blacks from families earning over $70,000 a year have lower average SAT scores than whites from families taking in less than $10,000; blacks with a parent who graduated from college on average score below whites whose parents never finished high school. In a 1992 test of adult literacy and numeracy, the typical black college graduate performed only a shade better than the typical white high school graduate with no college, and far below white college dropouts.
Some of the bad news is familiar (the black poverty rate, for instance), its high visibility in part a consequence of the great expectations -- inevitably frustrated -- that the civil fights revolution properly raised. And then, too, there is grave and legitimate concern in the mainstream media about the appalling condition of much life in the black urban ghettos. We have quarrels with the pictures drawn by the media but not with the concern expressed.
That quarrel centers on the lack of analytic rigor that so often characterizes media discussions of white racism. Take, for example, a July 1994 report in the New York Times on the "lagging" recruitment of black police officers in that city. Despite two black police commissioners, the last holding office from 1990 to 1992, the number of black men in the NYPD remained low, the article pointed out; in 1994 the city was 29 percent black, while its police force was only 11.6 percent African American.
In 1993 the police department had tried hard to recruit minority officers, and the number of test-takers had risen. But while the written tests had been purged of most supposedly discriminatory features, the Times reported, those who passed the entry exams were also screened for psychological, medical, and character problems. That more-subjective testing still favored white males, black officers charged. Although no direct quotation was provided, the president of an organization of black police and corrections personnel complained that white psychiatrists, physicians, and interviewers assessed minority candidates by "white, middle-class values." Subtle and not so subtle discrimination kept the NYPD disproportionately white, said such "experts" and "advocates."
Other cities had done better -- for instance, Los Angeles. In 1994 the LAPD, like the city itself, was 14 percent black. Did that mean that its recruitment processes were more racially fair? The Times did not suggest that possibility, perhaps because the LAPD suffered a national reputation for racism even before anyone had heard of Mark Fuhrman. The applicant pools may have been different. The job market differs from city to city; in New York perhaps better-paying work was more available. The Times ignored these and other possibilities. Over the previous two decades, it reported, the proportion of black men in the police force had actually declined (from 7.7 percent to 7.5 percent). Had either the city or those who ran the NYPD become more racist since the early 1970s? It is difficult to believe.
Racism is serious, but such uncritical stories -- with their unsubstantiated charges and casual assaults on standards disparagingly labeled white and middle-class -- invite indifference. Worse still, such assaults encourage dangerous conclusions about the significance of skin color and reinforce the perception that blacks in general have "underclass" values, such that the "character testing" used to screen whites was inappropriate for them. In a very long article the Times quoted no one who questioned the notion that blacks should not be judged by the same criteria as whites. Racist assumptions crop up in unexpected quarters.
What counts as racism? And what to do when we find it? Two questions, and no consensus on the answers. On the policy issue, in fact, there is increasing disagreement within the civil rights community itself. As the problems have grown more complex, the solutions have become more controversial. More than forty years down the civil rights road, the terrain has turned hazardous.
Take the issue of persistent segregation in higher education, In 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court found that the State of Mississippi was still separating white and black college students. There were no WHITES ONLY signs, of course. But the majority of whites and blacks attended different schools, in part because African Americans who applied to the University of Mississippi and other historically white institutions faced a hurdle that whites more easily surmounted. Those schools relied heavily (by no means exclusively) on American College Test scores in selecting students for admission, and although they set the bar low, fewer blacks than whites met the standard.
The use of the ACT "fostered" segregation, Justice Byron White argued in U.S. v. Fordice, speaking for a majority of eight on the Court. Although neutral on their face, the admissions criteria and other policies were declared to have their roots in the Jim Crow era and were thus constitutionally suspect. "That college attendance is by choice and not by assignment does not mean that a race-neutral admissions policy cures the constitutional violation of a dual system," he wrote.
The past is always present, the Court had suggested."'Everything in Alabama'...is influenced by past segregation," Kenneth Tollett, a law professor at Howard University remarked in response to a related ruling. But what, precisely, was that "influence"? In 1962, when James Meredith broke the color barrier at "Ole Miss," it was clear why the school was 100 percent white; that's the way the whites wanted it. But thirty years later the Court in Fordice was reduced to talking about admissions criteria, institutional "mission assignments," and programmatic duplications that conceivably influenced to an unknown extent the decisions students made about which school to attend.
Elusive definitions of racism that fail to pinpoint actual harms invite remedies that provide no genuine relief. In 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, the Court had spoken of the irrevocable damage to the "hearts and minds" of the black children condemned by the state to segregated schools, but were the college students who had elected to attend Mississippi Valley State University more than three decades later similarly affected? And if not, what exactly -- if anything -- was wrong with majority-black MVSU?
Nothing, was the conviction of those who had brought the Fordice suit; they had wanted more money for historically black schools. But increased funding was unacceptable to the Court, which saw in that remedy the ghost of "separate but equal" -- a return to the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson, a walk backward into a dark past. Only this time the misleadingly labeled "exclusively black enclaves" (they weren't all-black) would be created "by private choice": an important difference that made no difference to the High Court. Thus, the district court, in whose hands the question of a remedy rested, proposed instead closing all but one of the traditionally black colleges, forcing African-American students to attend largely white schools. Those forced choices, Justice White had already intimated, would be "truly free."
That wasn't how the black leadership saw it, however. In the summer of 1994, the NAACP (at first thrilled by the Supreme Court's ruling) organized a civil rights march to preserve Mississippi Valley State University, an historically black institution founded in the Jim Crow era. An allegedly "segregated" institution had become a black cause. The march was the culmination of two years of outrage. "The mood runs from anger to disgust to disbelief," MVSU president William Sutton had said in the fall of 1992. No one wants a repeat of Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the closing of black schools, an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had added. "It's important...for blacks to hang onto something and call it their own," an MSVU student remarked when in 1995 the district court judge finally said okay, the "black enclaves" that had so offended the Supreme Court's integrationist sensibilities would remain.
Ironies abound. Brown v. Board of Education was by far the most important case the NAACP ever won; thirty-eight years later that same organization spoke of that landmark decision with regret. The Supreme Court had attempted to draw a straight analytical line from Brown to Fordice, but in fact much had changed between 1954 and 1992. Laws such as that which barred Linda Brown from school had vanished; desegregation had come to mean the busing of students to achieve racial balance; the status of blacks had improved dramatically; white racial attitudes had been transformed; and black views on many issues had shifted. Changing black sensibilities in a different America, coups and other public institutions caught in shifting civil rights winds, troubling definitions of racism, a racial climate created in part by the unintended consequences of well-meaning remedies -- these themes, so apparent in the Mississippi higher education case, run as a leitmotif through our book.
Much has changed, but the racial divide has not disappeared. The trial of black celebrity O. J. Simpson, accused of murdering his white ex-wife and Ronald Goldman, was a particularly vivid reminder of that sobering fact. Blacks and whites were equally absorbed by the trial, but from the outset their views were radically different. Most whites concluded Simpson was guilty; most blacks believed his professed innocence. And in the days that followed the October 3, 1995, not-guilty verdict, unforgettable images flitted across the nation's television screens: of cheers, hugs, and high fives among black crowds; of downcast whites and racist graffiti in Brentwood, the traditionally white, liberal, upscale neighborhood in which O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson both lived. "Whites v. Blacks" was the title Newsweek gave its post-verdict story. "Will the Verdict Split America?" Time magazine asked. Are we two nations or one? The question assumed still greater urgency when Louis Farrakhan led a Million Man March in Washington, D.C., just thirteen days after the O. J. verdict.
Questions that had moved to the periphery of the civil rights debate have now returned to center stage. How culturally important is skin color? Are blacks a group like no other and likely to remain quite separate? If so, does the drive for integration remain important? "When I got my law degree, I didn't check my blackness at the door," Leonardo Knight, a lawyer living on Capitol Hill, remarked in 1994. "There is very little difference between black Americans and white Americans when you go to the bottom of it. But what little there is, is very important," the literary critic Gerald Early had written a year earlier. Black and white, much more equal, but still separate. It wasn't the vision we once had.
"We cannot walk alone," Dr. King said in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. The destiny of whites and blacks is inextricably entwined. But how to walk together? That question has lost none of its urgency in the fifty years since Gunnar Myrdal wrote An American Dilemma. Myrdal's work was full of hope; he believed fervently in the potential for racial decency in most Americans. Our book, too, rests on that optimistic premise.
Copyright © 1997 by Stephan Thernstorm and Abigail Thernstorm